New Ohio registry stores facts on arsonists

Ohio residents convicted of arson and related crimes must register their address, finger and palm prints and other information with law enforcement under a law that went into effect this month.

A law passed by the General Assembly in December establishes an arson registry for the state. Unlike the sex offender registry, this information will not be made available to the public but will be used by investigators.

Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks said he believes the database will be beneficial, although he’s not sure to what extent.

“Anytime you have intelligence information, I’d say it’s going to be useful,” he said.

Several officials contacted for this story said arsonists tend to have higher recidivism rates than perpetrators of other crimes. Some studies indicate the opposite is true; however, there are multiple cases of repeat offenders and fire and law enforcement officials have said in published reports that a registry could be useful in apprehending and stopping them. Only two other states – California and Louisiana – have such a registry active.

While the law would not apply to people who have already served their sentences for arson, aggravated arson or related crimes, it requires those convicted going forward or those currently serving an arson sentence to register with the sheriff of the county in which they live after they are released. They must submit their name, address, place of work or school, license plate number or numbers and palm and fingerprints, among other information.

The law also applies to people living in Ohio convicted of arson offenses in other states. A person has 10 days from when they are released from incarceration or move into the state to register; failure to do so is a fifth-degree felony.

The convicted arsonist must register once a year for life.

“We hope this new registry will serve as a valuable investigative tool for law enforcement and fire officials,” Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said in a news release announcing the registry was online. “Now, investigators will be able to look at an arson scene and quickly determine if any convicted arsonists live nearby.”

Michael Duchesne, public information officer with the Ohio State Fire Marshal’s Office, said that alone likely won’t be a reason for investigators to question someone on the registry. However, similarities between that person’s crime and the fire being investigated could prompt a closer look.

“We see it as nothing but a positive as far as just another tool for the investigator’s toolbox,” Duchesne said.

It sounds like a good idea to New Matamoras resident Winnie Malone, too. Malone, 71, was among many residents concerned over a building in the middle of the village that burned after a teenager set it on fire in 2006. The structure became an eyesore and a safety concern before it was finally torn down about a year later.

“I think it could be useful,” she said. “If some things (about the fires) are similar, they would be able to talk to those people, if nothing else.”

Among those who would be required to register is John C. Fortney, 24, a Lowell resident serving an 11-year prison sentence for his role in a 2010 fire that destroyed buildings housing the Marietta Wine Cellars and Riverside Artists Gallery on Front Street in Marietta and severely damaged two other structures.

Ken Kupsche, owner of The Cook’s Shop, one of the buildings damaged, said he understands the reasoning behind the registry, but it wouldn’t have prevented the 2010 fire downtown.

“The issue with Mr. Fortney was not so much that he was an arsonist but that he was mentally unstable,” Kupsche said. “He needed psychiatric help; he needed care and attention.”

While Kupsche said the registry is a good idea, it’s also another cost in a state that has cut mental health funding in recent years.

“It just seems like we’d be more well off putting funds back into mental health locally,” he said.

The law requires those registering to pay $50 initially, then $25 each time they re-register. Kupsche said he doubts that will cover the cost of the system.

Jill Del Greco, public information officer for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, said setting up the system cost $50,000, and the fees are meant for maintenance, not necessarily to pay for the startup.

“We expect that the fee will continue to pay for the upkeep of it,” she said.